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The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns

Benjamin Constant

Copyright ©2010–2015 All rights reserved. Jonathan Bennett
[Brackets] enclose editorial explanations. Small ·dots· enclose material that has been added, but can be read as though it were part of the original text. Occasional •bullets, and also indenting of passages that are not quotations,

are meant as aids to grasping the structure of a sentence or a thought. —This text began life as a lecture to the Athénée Royal of Paris in 1819. First launched: April 2010

For each of them it is •the right to be subjected only to the laws. the other is the liberty that is especially precious to the modern nations. I know that some writers have claimed to detect traces of it among some ancient peoples. The ancient peoples couldn’t feel the need for it. not by men whose assigned task was like that of today’s elected defenders of our liberties. were nominated by the people. France found itself exhausted by useless experiments. 1 i.e. once the institution had been created by the kings. Their social organization led them to want a kind of freedom totally different from what representative government grants to us. 1 . until now. yet it was totally unknown to the free nations of antiquity. including ones selected by the people. This was true of all the magistrates in the ancient republics. angered by their failures. and it would be interesting and useful to look into why that is so. because I’m focussing on its results.Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty I’m going to call your attention to some distinctions—still rather new ones—between two kinds of liberty: the differences between the two haven’t been noticed.1 and we couldn’t find freedom and peace today except under the shelter of that form of government. but this is wrong. (Oligarchies are the same in all ages!) But the people exercised considerable political rights directly. far from being simply a barrier against tyranny. in the republic of Sparta. or at least haven’t been properly attended to. imprisoned. for two different reasons. The regime of the Gauls quite resembled one that a certain party would like to restore to us! It was at once theocratic and warlike. up to a point. I think that this investigation matters to us. they took part in the actual administration of government. and you will see that the condition of the human race in antiquity made it impossible then for such an institution to be introduced or established. Their authority was as much •religious as political. The power of the kings was indeed limited. So Rome had only feeble traces of the representative system. The mission of the tribunes in Rome was a representative one. First ask yourselves what an Englishman. put to death or maltreated in any way by decision of one or more individuals. They acted on behalf of the plebeians who had been reduced to a harsh slavery by the oligarchy when it overthrew the kings. a Frenchman. and not to be arrested. The people had no rights and no safeguards. What Sparta had was in no way a representative government—it was a •monastic aristocracy. They met to vote on the laws and to judge nobles who had been accused of wrong-doing. and a citizen of the United States of America understand today by the word ‘liberty’. The priests enjoyed unlimited power. tried to force France to enjoy the benefits that it didn’t want. One is the liberty that the ancient peoples valued so much. in the executive power. Tonight’s lecture will be devoted to demonstrating this truth to you. (2) We are called by our happy revolution to enjoy the benefits of representative government. Representative government is a modern discovery. The military class—the nobility—had very arrogant and oppressive privileges. I call it happy. for example. Thus their power. and denied it the ones it did want. sometimes itself became an intolerable tyranny. or among our ancestors the Gauls. and the authors of these. But there were only five of them. but it was limited by the magistrates. or appreciate its advantages. (1) The failure to distinguish these two kinds of liberty was the cause of many evils during the famous—all too famous!— days of our revolution. despite its excesses. No doubt the magistrates.

or—especially—of religion. but to the ancients this would have seemed criminal and sacrilegious. •pronounce judgments. •examine the accounts. and without explaining what one is doing or why. As you read on. But more often. or whatever. In all the matters that seem to us the most important. Now compare this liberty with that of the ancients. therefore. independence. and •each person’s right to have some influence on the administration of the government—by electing all or some of the officials. or to join in worship. the authority of the collective interposed itself and obstructed the will of individuals. As a citizen he decides on peace and war. All private actions were strictly monitored. ‘way of life’. •the right to come and go without permission. This version will use ‘benefit(s)’ throughout.] a profession and practise it. •vote on new laws. The laws regulate mœurs. •the right of each person to associate with other individuals—whether to discuss their interests. In a way. The Spartan Therpandrus can’t add a string to his lyre without offending the magistrates.Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty •the right of each person to express his opinion. Pronunciation: make it rhyme with ‘purr’. because it can mean ‘customs’. coming together in the public square to •discuss and make decisions about war and peace. you’ll see why. and stewardship of the magistrates. [About the word mœurs: This is left untranslated. acts. and that creates a translation problem: ‘pleasures’ is too narrow: you can care about your jouissances without being pleasure -driven. or through representations. but that wouldn’t generate good colloquial English. The liberty of the ancients consisted in carrying out collectively but directly many parts of the over-all functions of government. as a 2 . as here. You find among them almost none of the benefits [jouissances] that I have just listed as parts of the liberty of the moderns. choose [About the word jouissance: On a few occasions Constant speaks of our jouissance of liberty. the searching eye of the censors penetrate into family life.] Among the ancients. there’s nothing that the laws don’t regulate. or demands that the authorities are more or less obliged to take into consideration. •accuse the magistrates and then condemn or acquit them. but remember: the items called ‘benefits’ include any things or events or states of affairs that could contribute to the satisfactoriness of the person’s life. or simply to fill the time in any way that suits his fancy. In Rome. We moderns regard the right to choose one’s own religious affiliation as one of the most precious. dispose of his own property and even to misuse it. ‘enjoyments’ would be better. ‘morality’. and as mœurs touch on everything. and the preparer of this version is not willing to make an unannounced choice amongst these for each occurrence of the word. or of choice of work. •call the magistrates to appear in front of the assembled people. he speaks of jouissances with no of. they saw no inconsistency between this •collective freedom and the complete subjection of the •individual to the authority of the group. the individual is nearly always sovereign in public affairs but a slave in all his private relations. ‘habits’. But while the ancients called this liberty. and there it means ‘enjoyment’—our jouissance of our independence is just our •having independence and •finding it satisfactory to have it. No room was allowed for individual independence of opinions. •form alliances with foreign governments. In the most domestic of relations the public authority again intervene: a young Spartan isn’t free to visit his new bride whenever he wants to. petitions.

Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty private individual he is constrained. Let us now track this essential difference between the ancients and ourselves back to its source. Those who had no desire to be conquerors couldn’t lay down their weapons for fear of being conquered. put to death. each people constituted an isolated family. exiles or sentences to death his magistrates and superiors. the citizen lost in the city. as a member of the collective body he interrogates. If I want something that you own. impoverishes. though with different names and forms of social organization. on the other hand. commerce— ·i. I must pause for a moment here to anticipate a possible objection. The modern world looks totally different from that. And. This mass is strong enough to have nothing to fear from barbarian hordes.e. as an equally necessary result of this mode of existence. and in agreeing that that is the fact I’ll show you its cause. Thus driven by necessity against one another. or than Rome was through five of its centuries. Its uniform tendency is towards peace. even in the freest states the individual is sovereign only in appearance. This difference brings another one with it. Back then. I am speaking of Athens. though he is independent in his private life. my offer to buy it from you·—is simply my tribute to your strength. all he ever does with it is to renounce it. It is enlightened enough to find war a burden. all these states had slaves. We shall see why Athens is the ancient state that most resembles the modern ones. whereas now there is a mass of human beings that have the same basic nature. His sovereignty is restricted and nearly always suspended. dismisses. Even the division of Europe into distinct states is more apparent than real. watched and repressed in all his movements. so to speak. The smallest states of our day are incomparably larger than Sparta was. A man who was always the strongest wouldn’t ever conceive the idea of commerce. the born enemy of other families. their independence. most substantial among them weren’t equal in size to the smallest of modern states. it was a constant concern of theirs. nothing but machines whose gears and cog-wheels were regulated by the law. What leads us . War was the price the free states of antiquity had to pay to purchase their security. and if at fixed and rare intervals—surrounded by precautions and obstacles—he exercises this sovereignty. coming to own what one wants to own. All the ancient republics were geographically small. as a subject of the collective body he can himself be deprived of his status. Condorcet was right: the ancients had no notion of individual rights. I’ll return to it later. their whole existence. ·i. and an almost constant occupation. The same subjection was a feature of the great centuries of the Roman republic: the individual was in a way lost in the nation. Everywhere else social jurisdiction was unlimited. banished. because they are merely two different ways of achieving the same end—namely. Commerce is an attempt to get through mutual agreement something that one has given up hope of acquiring through violence. condemns. The most populous. by the free choice of the whole of which he is a part. stripped of his privileges. It is the most famous of all the republics—yes. Men were. thanks to the spread of enlightenment. War precedes commerce. Among the moderns. most powerful.e. There is in antiquity a republic where the subjection of individual existence to the collective body is not as complete as I have just described it. they fought or threatened each other constantly. Their small size inevitably made them bellicose: each people 3 incessantly attacked its neighbors or was attacked by them. The manual labour and even (in some nations) the business activities were entrusted to people in chains. my admission that I can’t just take the thing I want·.

They want repose. To pass through the straits of Gibraltar—their ‘Pillars of Hercules’—was regarded as the most daring of enterprises. I’ll mention just one. Commerce then was a lucky accident. business. (3) Commerce doesn’t leave intervals of inactivity in men’s lives. War is impulse. Among the moderns a war—even a successful one—is certain to cost more than it is worth. benefits that match the results of peaceful work and orderly exchanges. whereas other kinds of insurance of goods cost only 12%. I don’t mean that amongst the ancients there were no trading peoples.000 Athenians couldn’t have gathered in the public square for discussions. In Athens. The same is not true of the simple citizen of Britain or of the United States. commerce is calculation. •tributes [= money and goods that the losers are compelled to pay to the victors] and •lands shared out. There were. habits. The most obscure republican of Sparta or Rome had power. what he may have meant: insuring a maritime trading journey cost about 60% of the value of the cargo. and for just that reason a time must come when commerce replaces war. what Constant wrote next: l’intérët maritime était d’environ soixante pour cent. a successful war increased public and private wealth in •slaves. thanks to commerce. His personal influence is an invisibly small part of the social will that gives the government its direction. If only I had time I would show you—through the details of the ancient traders’ mœurs. the ablest of navigators. all provision for the needs of society. Because they didn’t have compasses. the sailors of antiquity always had to keep within sight of the coast as much as possible. ways of going about trading with other peoples—that their commerce was so to 4 speak impregnated by the spirit of the age. and with repose comfort. but they were somehow an exception to the general rule. every day. I can’t. All the professions. War becomes. the use of our strength against the strength of others—exposes us various obstacles and defeats. didn’t risk it until very late. list all the obstacles that there were back then to the development of commerce. We have reached that time. religion.Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty to resort to commerce is our experience that war—i. 20. the true life of nations. to individuals or to nations. by the atmosphere of war and hostility surrounding it. there are no longer slaves among the European nations. daily. It’s not hard to have some sense of what the inevitable result will be of these differences. as war does. the smaller is the political importance allotted to each individual. a more ineffective means of satisfying their wishes. which shows how dangerous the idea of distant navigation seemed. Finally. When we turn to commerce we are using a milder and surer means of making it in someone else’s interests to agree to what we want. you know them as well as I do.e. in a lecture. Without the slave population of Athens. today it is the normal state of things. and the moral and intellectual progress of the human species. and for a long time no-one followed their example. The free people of antiquity would ·often· have languished under the weight of miserable inaction if it hadn’t been for the constant exercise of political rights. and as a source of comfort. (1) The bigger a country is. Its risks no longer offer. the only aim. the . which I’ll come to shortly. Among the ancients. the universal tendency. The Phoenicians and the Carthaginians. must be done by free men. (2) The abolition of slavery has deprived the free population of all the leisure they used to have when slaves did most of the work. pendant que l’intérët ordinaire n’était que de douze.

consisting in constant active participation in collective power. engaged in trade far more than any other Greek republic. So you can see that we can’t any longer enjoy the liberty that the ancients had. (4) Commerce inspires in men an intense love of individual independence. The will of each individual had real influence. and the pride of all the legislators of the age. All of that would only cause trouble and fatigue to modern nations. the compulsory remplissage [meaning something like packing. Our liberty has to consist of the peaceful enjoyment of private independence. . says a philosopher. The people make the laws. sentence to death the generals who were in command at the battle of the Arginusae. the benefits he has or hopes for—doesn’t want to be side-tracked from them other than momentarily. I said that I would return to Athens: it might be cited as contradicting some of my assertions. as it is ·for us· today. gap-plugging]. Each person’s share in the sovereignty of his country wasn’t an abstract bit of theory. without any intervention from the authorities. the citizens quicken their step when they are called by a magistrate. In their relations with women you’ll see (I’m citing Xenophon again) husbands. this intervention is always a trouble and an embarrassment. the disagreements. so to speak. and the exercise of this will was a lively . we shall be struck by their excessive love of individual independence. In Sparta. . At the same time. forgiving the first weakness and forgetting the second. the secret planning sessions. his enterprises. and as seldom as possible. it harms the speculators. . closing their eyes to the irresistible power of passions. The spirit of the Athenian merchants was like that of merchants today. Finally. In their relations with strangers. I don’t know why I say ‘almost’. but an Athenian would hate to be thought to be subordinate to a magistrate. If I could go into historical details. Commerce had created the circulation of money for them. It supplies their needs.Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty daily discussion of the affairs of the state. satisfies their desires. examine the magistrates’ conduct. summon Pericles to report on his administration. 5 satisfied when peace and decent friendship reigned in their households. Xenophon tells us that during the Peloponnesian war the Athenians moved their treasures from mainland Attica to the islands of the archipelago. This intervention is almost always. Athens. . See how much their mœurs are like ours. I would show you that with the Athenians commerce had removed several of the differences between ancient and modern peoples. the whole procession and movement of factions. they do it worse than we would and at greater cost. •because several of the other features that fixed the character of ancient nations existed in Athens as well—there was a slave population and the territory was very restricted—we find in Athens too the remnants of the specifically ancient form of liberty. Every time collective power tries to meddle with private speculations. but •that rightly seems to us to be disgustingly wicked— shows that the individual was still much more subservient to the supremacy of the social body in Athens than he is in any free state in Europe today. Every time governments offer to do our business for us. as I have already pointed out. However. of their lives. In ·the writings of· Isocrates there are signs that money-orders were in use. where each individual—occupied with his speculations. they can be seen extending the rights of citizenship to anyone who would move in with his family and establish some trade or workshop. necessary agitations. making allowances for the wife who is not strong enough to withstand nature’s tyranny. ostracism—a kind of decision •that was legal. so it allowed to its citizens infinitely more individual liberty than did Sparta or Rome. but in fact it confirm them all.

one can’t follow the actions of its great men. a special kind of emotion that isn’t aroused by anything modern. they were sacrificing less to obtain more. especially when we were living under vicious governments that were weren’t strong but were •harsh. without feeling. nothing confirms in his eyes his own cooperation. was a sublime genius. the steady increase of commerce. . •absurd in their principles. •repressive in their effects. God forbid that I should criticise them too severely. because of their failure to see these differences. so to speak. and those who even today don’t accept this—shame on them! But those men—·our first guides in the revolution·—had extracted some of their theories from the works of two philosophers who themselves hadn’t suspected the changes in the dispositions of mankind that two thousand years had brought. that . Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It’s hard not to 6 feel sad about the pastness of the time when man’s faculties were developing in a direction already marked out for them. So the exercise of political rights offers us only a part of the benefit that the ancients found in it. well. have infinitely multiplied and varied the means of personal happiness. I said at the outset that men who were otherwise wellintentioned caused countless harms during our long and stormy revolution. Each one of them. as if we could ever forget having been witnesses and victims of their obstinacy. of collective sovereignty. •with belittling of mankind as their purpose —governments that some individuals still dare to praise to us today. and ‘liberty’ is their name for the guarantees accorded by institutions to these benefits. •wretched in action. His will never impresses itself on the whole. but by transposing into our modern age an amount of social power. The old elements of a nature that we used to have. Lost in the crowd. . while at the same time the progress of civilization. seem to awaken in us in the face of these memories. One can’t read the beautiful pages of antiquity. It follows that we must be far more attached than the ancients to our individual independence. but sweeping forward with such strong powers and with such a sense of energy and dignity.Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty pleasure each time it was employed. The aim of the moderns is to be secure in their private benefits. the communication amongst peoples. The aim of our reformers ·in the French Revolution· was noble and generous. feeling with pride the great value of his vote. animated by the purest love of liberty. whereas for us it would be giving more to obtain less. The more illustrious of these philosophers. and if we give ourselves over to such feelings we can’t help wanting to imitate the things we feel sad about losing. When they sacrificed that independence in order to keep their political rights. Who among us didn’t feel his heart beat with hope when he first set foot on the road that they seemed to open up? Admitting that our first guides committed some errors doesn’t mean fouling their memory or disowning opinions that mankind’s friends have professed down through the centuries. regarded this sense of personal importance as more than making up for his sacrifices. •with personal decision ·of the monarch· as their final court of appeal. their error itself was excusable. The aim of the ancients was to share social power among the citizens of a single country. of their impotence and of their overthrow. This feeling was very strong. which is why the ancients were willing to make many sacrifices to preserve their political rights and their share in the administration of the state. Such compensation no longer exists for us today. that’s what they called ‘liberty’. the individual can hardly ever see the influence that he exerts.

and respectful in my criticism. I need to devote all my energies to disowning and denouncing these would-be allies. the first one of Greece. I lose confidence in myself. commerce. between (1) the spirit of .’ (That’s what a great nobleman said about the French Academy. Politicians today tell us only about (2) manufactures. I hasten to add that he was talking about the Academy as it was thirty years ago!) Montesquieu. and to him any means seemed good if it extended the active scope of that authority over the recalcitrant part of human existence whose independence he deplored. ‘What an appalling despotism! Everyone does what he likes there. All through his works he expresses his regret that the law can only reach actions. following the maxims of ancient liberty. and would have been willing to say of this nation. I am talking about the abbé de Mably. indeed the oppositeness. we’ll see that it is not Rousseau who is chiefly responsible for the error that I am going to argue against. even love was subject to this respected intervention. wealth and even luxury. with them everything was governed by the law—right down to relaxations. and to console myself for appearing for a moment to agree with them on one limited point. had followed the ancients in thinking that •the authority of the social body is •liberty. but he didn’t discover their true cause. he thought he had made a discovery and proposed it as a model. he provided deadly pretexts for more than one kind of tyranny. whose mind was more observant because he wasn’t such a hot-head.Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty belonged to other centuries. He deeply despised Athens. According to him. and whenever in history he came across a nation totally deprived of it. the Greek politicians who lived under the popular government didn’t recognize any power but the power of (1) virtue. He was ecstatic about the Egyptians because. didn’t fall right into the same errors. holds that the citizens should be entirely held down so that the nation can be sovereign. And. and it was the law that opened and then closed the curtains of the nuptial bed. even if it had no •political liberty. right down to needs: everything was constrained by the dominance of the legislator.) In pointing out what I regard as a misunderstanding that it is important to uncover. That vast convent [or. Whenever I happen to find myself apparently agreeing with those detractors on a single point. I shall be circumspect in my refutation. less eloquent than Rousseau but no less austere and a hundred times more extreme. as a previous translator put it. This philosopher was roused to an even more intense enthusiasm by Sparta’s combination of •republican forms and •the same enslavement of individuals. he said. who can be seen as the representative of the system which. He loathed •individual liberty in the way one loathes a personal enemy. He would have liked it to reach thoughts and the most fleeting impressions. I certainly won’t join the detractors of a great man. he couldn’t help admiring it. like Rousseau and many others. But the interests of truth should have precedence over considerations that give so much power to the glory of a prodigious talent and the authority of an immense reputation. As soon as he learned of some oppressive measure in 7 some country or other. to pursue man relentlessly. and that the individual should be enslaved so that the people can be free. He attributes this difference to ·the difference between· (1) the republic and (2) the monarchy. (I’ll show this if and when I examine Rousseau’s system ·in detail·. ‘that vast monastic barracks’] appeared to him to be the ideal of a perfect republic. leaving him no place of escape from its power. every moment of the day was filled by some duty. finances. He was struck by the differences I have described. the responsibility for it lies much more with one of his successors. anyway. It ought instead to be attributed to the difference. The abbé de Mably. of which he was a member.

views that Rousseau and de Mably had made respectable. It follows (iii) that none of the numerous and over-praised institutions which hindered individual liberty in the ancient republics is admissible in modern times. •Rousseau’s metaphysics. But laws too must have their limits. that it would rather have the yoke of tyrants. Citizens of republics and subjects of monarchies all want benefits. sometimes. without destroying the need for it. In the past. —all these things were bound to charm men who were lit up by a recent victory. and who. and wearily thought. therefore (ii) they should never be asked to make sacrifices in order to establish political liberty. •his hatred of all human passions. Free institutions. and •Mably’s austerity: •his intolerance. ‘The laws of liberty are a thousand times more austere than the yoke of tyrants’—the people were told this over and over again. The people that cared most about liberty in modern times—before France was liberated—was also the people that cared most about all the benefits of life. ·because· many governments today show no sign of wanting to imitate the ancient republics. And yet. relying on the knowledge of the spirit of the age. The nation didn’t find that having a notional share in an abstract sovereignty was worth the sacrifices required from it. in the middle of which there are sudden flashes of sublime truth. and in the present state of societies no-one can not want them. given the education they had received—steeped in ancient views that have become false. but it did no good. and that all restrictions on individual rights would be amply compensated for by participation in social power.Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty ancient times and (2) the spirit of modern times. The nation had no desire for those austere laws. •his eagerness to enslave everyone. and passages of stirring eloquence. on Rousseau’s authority. They found valuable support in the fact that two writers—ones with no axe to grind. They believed that everything should give way before the collective will. It has now learned from experience that that wouldn’t be better. having gained control of the law’s power. The men whom the flow of events swept to the head of our revolution were—inevitably. where there was liberty people could bear hardship. could have survived. • the difference between what he recommended and what had previously existed. Your first impression may be that there is no need to argue for this truth. and it valued its liberty mainly because it saw in this the guarantee of the benefits that it cherished. You know what came of this. I hope I have brought you to the point of agreeing with me about those three principles. They wanted to use public power in the 8 way (so they had learned from their guides) it had once been used in the free states. It would be easier today to turn an enslaved people into Spartans than to turn free men into Spartans. that (i) individual independence is the first need of the moderns. The fact is that social power damaged individual independence in every possible war. I think. now the only way to get people to put up with hardship is by enslaving them. and haters of human despotism—put the text of the law into the form of axioms. •his extravagant principles about what the law can achieve. These facts show. The restored edifice of the ancients collapsed. despite many efforts and many heroic acts which call for our admiration. it has seen that the arbitrary power of •men was even worse than the worst of •laws. were happy about the idea of extending this power to everything. •his denunciation of wealth and even of property. however little liking they may have for republican .

and thus •constantly found themselves the spectators and judges of the use of public power. ostracism could appear useful. and •possessed of a glorious reputation had an influence as powerful as that of all the rest put together. [About the French word censure: It refers to the Roman practice of having two official ‘censors’ with strong powers to act. following a law which explicitly assigns the penalty of exile for the action of which he is guilty. censorship degenerated . against people they thought to be a threat to Rome’s well-being. the merchant from his trade. confiscation of property. the owner from his possessions.] So I don’t think I am engaging in a useless discussion if. All political exile is a political abuse. In a republic where the citizens •had very simple mœurs because that’s all they could afford. Roman censorship was like Athenian ostracism in involving a discretionary power. I remember that in 1802 they slipped into a law about special tribunals an article which introduced Greek ostracism into France. and the refinements of civilization deprived this institution of what had served as its basis and its limit. It’s upsetting that these ·favoured practices· should be precisely the ones that permit banishment. the writer from his studious meditations. No-one has the right to tear the citizen from his country. when nervous authorities tried with a timid hand to rig the elections. the husband from his wife. According to that theory it could be justified. But with us. •engaged in no trade or business that would distract their attention from the affairs of the state. •all lived in the same town. in the observance of forms. and therefore unjust. Any exile pronounced by an assembly for alleged reasons of public good is a crime that this assembly commits against the public good. No-one has the right to exile a citizen unless he is legally convicted by a regular court.Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty •institutions. which resides only in respect for the laws. But as soon as the republic’s size. a journal that has no taint of republicanism proposed to revive Roman censorship [censure] to disqualify all dangerous candidates. censorship could have greater influence. the complexity of social relations. without any hearing or trial or other juridical process. to support my assertion. there are certain republican •practices for which they feel affection. and. the father from his children. and the arbitrary power of the censors was restrained by a kind of moral surveillance exercised over them. and in the maintenance of safeguards. This version will continue to translate it as ‘censorship’. Athenian ostracism was based on the theory that society had complete authority over its members. but its meaning is very much wider and stronger than that would suggest. exile. and in a small state where it often happened that a single individual who was •trusted. I say a few words about these two much praised institutions. the old man from his accustomed way of life. as I 9 pointed out earlier. •well supplied with clients [= ‘dependents to whom he was not related’]. to try to diminish it by oppressive measures. and God knows how many eloquent speakers supported this article (which was eventually withdrawn) by talking to us about the liberty of Athens and all the sacrifices that individuals must make to preserve this liberty! And much more recently than that. the influence of any individual is so lost in a multitude of equal or greater influences that it is useless. individuals have rights that society must respect.

•The ‘limit’ is harder to explain. without harming anyone else. or •Egyptians under the control of priests. Gaul. with ever so many learned quotations being brought in to support this theory! The Persians. perhaps he thought of this as exercised by the populace at large—everyone kept an eye on the censors to see that they behaved themselves—and this (he may have thought) would become impossible with the growth of size and complexity. •The ‘basis’ for censorship was the set of facts that made it somewhat useful. complexity. which can play this role because it too is subtle. I’ll say it again: the true modern liberty is individual liberty. whose share in social authority consoled them for their enslavement as individuals. who killed Socrates for having undermined polytheism. I humbly beg these monarchies not to borrow methods of oppression from the ancient republics. We are modern men who want. and so on. who wanted the people to worship as their fathers did—which soon led to throwing the first Christians to wild animals. and •of ·the Roman emperor· Augustus. as dependent on the decisions of a few individuals·— as censorship would be both ineffective and intolerable. the authorities provide us with highways. the more intense the affection is. Our affection brings its own enlightenment. In the present conditions of society. [The phrase ‘its basis and its limit’ may need explaining. an institution as arbitrary—·i. elusive nuances that would be distorted in a thousand ways if one tried to define them more precisely. fluctuating. But we are not •Persians subjected to a despot. to come down hard on a citizen arbitrarily—·just on the basis of some official’s deciding to do this·—the entire nation would protest against this arrest by refusing to ratify the decisions of the authority. fluctuating. In the same way. like the Roman censors. Because we live in modern times. and •to watch over the development of these powers in the children whom nature entrusts to our affection—·which isn’t something blind or stupid that needs to be led or steered by the authorities·. I want a liberty suited to modern times.] In France. Constant has mentioned ‘a kind of moral surveillance’. and because we live under monarchies. ·for example schools and salaries for teachers·. •mœurs are made up of subtle. for example: such a clamour about the need to allow the government to take hold of the young so as to shape them to its pleasure. and all that applies also to many other aspects of social organization. individually. Take education. with antiquity being cited even more frequently and more loudly. and sophistication. If the government of a modern people tried. and those facts were abolished by the growth in the republic’s size.e. I have talked about the transplanting of censorship into modern times. •to enjoy our rights. or •Gauls who can be sacrificed by their druids. the more light it sheds. but don’t tell us which route to take. The only way to reach •them or to judge them is through public opinion. 10 Greece and Italy are exhibited one by one. Public opinion would rebel against any legal authority that was meant to give it more precision.Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty even in Rome. •to develop our powers as we see fit. Religion is also vulnerable to these memories of earlier centuries. Political liberty is its guarantee. Censorship hadn’t created the good mœurs [see note on page 2]. They support the rights of the Catholic church by the example of •the Athenians. the Egyptians. Let us mistrust this admiration for certain ancient memories. or •Greeks or Romans. Some brave defenders of the unity of doctrine [the adjective is meant sarcastically] tell us about the ancients’ laws against foreign gods. which is why we . the simplicity of the mœurs gave censorship its power and effectiveness. All we need from the authorities is the general means of instruction which they can supply. rather.

•frivolity to make them stupid. Governmental authority has a strict •duty to restrict its activities in this way. is the surest means of detaching them from •the latter. •despotism to direct them. These elements are •prejudices to frighten men. The right to help themselves to illegitimate power— governments don’t have that now any more than they ever 11 did. car elle peut enlever la jouissance . my observations haven’t the least tendency to lower the value of political liberty. We still have today the rights we have always had—the eternal rights to •assent to the laws. and it is also a matter of intelligent •self-interest. arguing like this: •The ancients were free. and ordinarily less passionate about •it too. I can’t believe it! From the differences between antiquity and ourselves I draw opposite conclusions.Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty must have political liberty too. to •deliberate on our interests. as the ancients did. Commerce makes the action of arbitrary power over our existence more oppressive than in the past. It would be weird if this were the outcome of forty centuries during which the human species has increased its control over the physical and human worlds. But governments have new duties: the progress of civilization. because •it changes the nature of property. require that authority show more respect for individuals’ customs. and we have means for doing this that the ancients did not. •We moderns can’t be free in the way the ancients were. Commerce gives property a new quality—circulation. making it almost impossible to seize. I am demanding civil liberty along with other forms of political liberty—·i. the despotism that was possible for them is no longer possible with us. and—indispensably— •constructive knowledge and exact sciences make the despotism more efficient.e. after which it won’t take long to rob them of •the former. But because we care much more about individual liberty than the ancients did. la propriété n’est qu’un usufruit. Just as the liberty that suits the moderns is different from what suited the ancients. and independence. I am not renouncing political liberty. But to ask today’s peoples to sacrifice their entire •individual liberty to •political liberty. forms of political liberty different from any of the ancient ones·. as our speculations are more varied. we may be led to neglect—sometimes too much. they say. •gross pleasures to degrade them. But the governments with a legitimate basis have even less right than before to exercise an arbitrary supremacy over individuals. because. . From the facts that I have put before you I don’t draw the same conclusions that some people have. and always wrongly—the guarantees that •it gives us. the only ones appropriate to the situation of the world today. We are often less focussed on •political liberty than they could be. They would like to reconstitute the new social state with a few elements that are. to •contribute to the cohesion of the social body of which we are members. As you see. what Constant writes next: Sans circulation. affections. l’autorité peut toujours influer sur l’usufruit. But •commerce also makes the action of arbitrary power easier to elude. They should have more prudence and a lighter touch in all their dealing with these. Rather than weakening the security ·of our individual liberties· we should extend our enjoyment ·of them·. arbitrary power must multiply itself to reach them. Therefore: •We moderns are destined to be slaves. •egoism to corrupt them. we shall defend it against attacks with much more skill and persistence. the changes brought by the centuries.

exclusively concerned with securing their share of social power. making sure that they aren’t negligent. Commerce has brought nations closer together. can’t take the form of money or jewels or art-works or the like). but the peoples are compatriots. Power threatens and wealth rewards. the more the exercise of political rights leaves us the time for our private interests. should exercise an active and constant surveillance over their representatives. But. they take with them all the benefits [see note on page 2] of private life. or incapable. The danger for modern liberty is that we. you elude power by deceiving it. money hides or flees. ‘is despotism’s most dangerous weapon and at the same time its most powerful restraint. absorbed in •the enjoyment of our private independence and •the pursuit of our particular interests.e. might under-value individual rights and benefits. Wealth is a power that is more readily available at any moment. The effects of commerce extend even further: not only does it emancipate individuals. Poor men look after their own affairs. might surrender too . and to revoke any powers they have abused. so wealth is bound to win. Individuals carry their treasures far away. The representative system is a mandate given to a certain number of men by the mass of the people who want their interests to be defended but don’t have the time to defend them constantly themselves. all the state’s operations are suspended. In the latter. giving them mœurs and habits that are almost identical. It is nothing but an organization by means of which a nation charges a few individuals to do what it can’t or doesn’t want to do itself. unless they are idiots. rich ones hire stewards. credit is subject to opinion. A chain of causes like that leads to the result that individual existence is less locked into political existence. corruptible. the threats to them are also different. it can consist only of land and the crops. Hence the need for the representative system. and if they are prudent the landowners will judge how well their mandate is being carried out by staying well-informed about the affairs the stewards have been entrusted to carry out. it needs to be organised differently from 12 ancient liberty. but to obtain the favours of wealth you have to serve it. the people who resort to the representative system so as to enjoy the liberty that suits them. Because modern liberty differs from ancient liberty. the heads of states may be enemies. whereas in our time individuals are stronger than the political powers. but circulation creates an invisible and invincible obstacle to this kind of action of social power. So power must accept the facts: we need liberty and we shall have it. force is useless. but by creating credit it places authority itself in a position of dependence. the freer he thought himself to be. But since the liberty we need is different from that of the ancients. animals and buildings on that land. the more precious liberty will be to us. which amounts to depriving you of it. more useful in the service of any cause. and reserve for themselves the right—at times that aren’t too far apart—to discard them if they betray their trust. the more time and energy a man dedicated to exercising his political rights. says a French writer. For ancient liberty the danger was that men. That is the story of ancient nations and modern nations. rich men who employ stewards keep a close and strict watch on whether they are doing their duty. and consequently more real and better obeyed. In the same way. ‘owning’ that is simply having the right to make use of it. whereas with the kind of liberty we can have. their governments were stronger than individuals. and a political authority can at any time prevent you from using it.Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty what he is probably getting at: If property can’t be circulated (i. ‘Money’.’ Credit didn’t have the same influence with the ancients.

but we should ask the authorities to stay within their limits: let them confine themselves to being just. See our countrymen of all classes and professions leaving the sphere of their usual labours and their private business. [This refers to the marquis de Lafayette. and finding themselves suddenly at the level of the important functions that the constitutions confers upon them. deep and generous emotions. deep and sincere patriotism triumph in our towns. Any one of us could. As the famous author of History of the Republics in the Middle Ages [Sismondi] says. far from renouncing either of the two sorts of freedom that I have described. ennobles their thoughts. enlarges their spirit. leave this happiness to us and we’ll give it to you. No. and equally enlightened regarding to the remedies that these evils demand. See a pure. enliven our countryside. and •swear off activity. the object of all your hopes? Isn’t it happiness? Well. glory. Their tender concern to make us happy is touching. where they choose with discernment. •lower his desires. bravely confront threats. and establishes among them a kind of intellectual equality which constitutes a people’s glory and power. These people. revive our villages. resist with energy. we would be moving along a narrow path to a rather low destination. it is necessary (I repeat) for us to learn to combine the two. institutions must accomplish the destiny of the human race. we must not leave it to them. embarrass tricksters. that desire to broaden our knowledge and develop our faculties. Thus. and political liberty is the most powerful. and we’ll take care of happiness. I bear witness to the better part of our nature. Political liberty. They are so ready to spare us every sort of trouble except the trouble of obeying and paying! They will say to us: ‘What. permeate our workshops. the most active means of improvement that heaven has given us. see how a nation grows when it first institutes the regular exercise of political liberty. . fill the just and honest minds of the useful farmer and the industrious tradesman with a sense of our rights and of the need for safeguards. basically.’ No. •reign in his moral faculties. is it so true that happiness of whatever sort is mankind’s only aim? If it were. Anyway.Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty easily our right to share in political power. the most illustrious of the defenders of liberty. nobly withstand seduction. sink to a sub-human level and be happy. they can best achieve their aim if they raise the largest possible number of citizens to the highest moral position. perhaps. if he were willing to •aim that low.] Therefore. after thirty years. who had been elected to the Chamber of Deputies—the French parliament—shortly before. by submitting to all the citizens—no exceptions—the care and assessment of their most sacred 13 interests. is the aim of your efforts. Could we be made happy by benefits [see note on page 2] if these weren’t somehow guaranteed? And where would we find guarantees if we gave up political liberty? Giving it up would be a folly like that of a man who doesn’t care if the house is built on sand because he lives only on the first floor. take in the whole of France in a single view and express the nation’s gratitude by repaying with their votes. What our destiny calls us to is not •happiness alone but to the •improvement ·of ourselves·. The holders of authority encourage us to do just that. the motive of your labors. well informed about the history of the evils they have suffered. to that noble disquiet that pursues and torments us.

14 . refraining from troubling their work. there is much left to do. securing their independence. give them both the desire and the power to perform them. institutions must nevertheless dedicate themselves to influencing public affairs. and by shaping them up through the exercise of these high functions. guaranteeing their right of control and supervision through the expression of their opinions. calling on the people to contribute to the exercise of power through their decisions and their votes. Institutions must carry out the moral education of the citizens. By respecting their individual rights.Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty The work of the legislator is not complete when he has simply brought peace to the people. Even when the populace is satisfied.

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